MANILA, April 21, 2004  (STAR) By Dina Sta. Maria - Batangas is a lot of things, most of them curiously starting with the letter B: Barako, balisong, bulalo, beef, beaches... and a "for the boys" culture that prides itself in machismo to the max. But I recently discovered another side of Batangas that is much more to my liking: A new Batangas cuisine that offers up a most inviting, interesting and delicious plate in a setting that combines the fine points of a European boutique hotel and the warmth of Filipino hospitality.

Just an hour and a half’s drive from Manila through the South Luzon Expressway and the Star Tollway into the heart of Batangas City is Hotel Pontefino, a 60-room boutique hotel that its owners proudly proclaim as "the first Filipino hotel". A welcoming lobby that leads out to a lush garden and two infinity pools, crisp white cotton sheets on orthopedically correct beds, spa-type rain shower heads, in-room internet access and Discovery Channel on TV (for those who cannot do without) and a most gracious staff that will serve you half a cup of coffee in a mug if that’s what you want–with no discussions about the why’s and wherefore’s of the request (if you must know, I add tsokolate to the wonderfully aromatic but potent barako to make my own mochaccino) and will remember your name by the end of your first day. These are some of the things that make this hotel a definite winner.

But there’s more...and it gets better. While grilled seafood served on and eaten out of banana leaf-lined bilaos is great for al fresco beach dining, the culinary experience at Pontefino is oh-so-civilized–and oh-so-good. There is an honest-to-goodness fine dining restaurant, Pastorelli’s, which serves the "no borders" cuisine made popular by the Chateau 1771 group in Manila, not surprising since the tandem of Ricky Gutierrez and Vicky Rose Pacheco are behind both enterprises. The restaurant is located garden-side, with tinted glass walls and soft white drapes; thick napkins and creaseless tablecloths, spotless crystal and heavy china, candlelight and soft music make Pastorelli’s a very urbane dining experience.

The very international menu includes a selection of pastas, salads, grilled meats and seafood, entrees and heavenly desserts that has become very popular with the local Batangas crowd. While there is a noticable Italian influence, the team’s commitment to using local ingredients finds expression in such dishes as a panfried tilapia with macadamia crust, a pasta with shrimps and flakes of sinaing na tulingan tossed in olive oil, basil, garlic and parmesan cheese, and the signature Balayan Cesar’s Salad, which is the house Cesar’s dressing using Balayan bagoong instead of anchovies.

Mouth-watering as that may be, I find that it is dining at the Robusta coffee shop that makes the trip worth all the calories. "Free style" Batangas cuisine is what it is, if you need a label, which means standard Batangas fare freely interpreted, but with the utmost respect for the ingredients and the traditions of the province.

I ventured (with permission, sort of) into the state-of-the-art kitchen and sought out chef Dennis Edillon to try and pry loose some culinary secrets. The very accommodating and engaging chef gladly sat down with me to discuss the details of the dishes I had just pigged out on, making the process of innovation sound so deceptively simple.

Start with bulalo, that most savory soup made from beef bones with the marrow still in. Slow simmering for at least 24 hours produces a clear broth that is enhanced with vegetables like young corn, Baguio pechay and potatoes. Excess fat is removed before serving, for both health and aesthetic reasons.

I was curious about the proliferation of lomi eateries by the roadsides; since when did this Fookienese noodle dish become a Batangas staple? Chef Dennis explains that lomi is really a quick snack, hunger-buster fare of the common folk. A broth made from an assortment of ingredients is thickened with cassava flour, and to this is added fat lomi noodles, some vegetables and sometimes slivers of kikiam (a kind of Chinese sausage). The young chef came up with a seafood take on this merienda fare, using thin noodles in a flavorful broth that patrons have declared "the best in Batangas City".

The native favorite pinaisan gets a fresh take with galunggong (the national poor man’s fish which became a campaign symbol in 1985) instead of the usual tulingan (a very common fish in Batangas that is rumored to be poisonous if improperly prepared; Batangueños disprove this by the fact that they are alive and kicking and still eating tulingan). Galunggong (or GG) fillets are seasoned and wrapped in banana leaf and placed on top of a layer of camias and pork fat in a palayok (clay pot). Water is added and the fish is weighed down during the slow simmer until it is cooked, "like sardines," the chef explains.

What to me is the crown jewel of Chef Dennis’ free style Batangas cuisine is his maliputo on a bed of sotanghon (glass noodles). The fabled fish breeds in the sea then finds its way up the Pansipit River to Taal Lake; this transformation from a salt water to fresh water fish (from talakitok in the sea to maliputo) makes it a prized and rare delicacy. Chef Dennis explains that not all maliputo are created equal; there is maliputo bungad, which is caught in the Pansipit River, and maliputo loob, which refers to the fish that makes it all the way to Taal Lake, and is "really tender", he vouches. He sources his maliputo from San Nicolas, a town right next to the lake. "We don’t serve ‘fakes’," he smiles.

While locals usually grill or cook the fish as sinigang (in kamias, which he also does, using the head and tail), Chef Dennis takes the belly and steams it on a bed of sotanghon, flavored with sesame oil, ginger and soy sauce. The delicate texture of the maliputo is enhanced perfectly by the delicate yet full-bodied flavors of the dish.

Bulanglang, a rather bland vegetable soup in its ordinary existence, gets tastier when the vegetables are boiled in a fish broth. "My parents are from Cebu," reveals Chef Dennis, "and what we used to do with leftover fried fish is make soup out of it. So I take fish–like the bones of the GG which I filleted for the pinaisan–fry and simmer it for a broth to boil the veggies in." Vegetables usually include squash, upo, eggplant and okra, and fish tofu and fried GG flakes are added to the soup for extra flavor.

Adobo is made the Batangas way, with vinegar and garlic but no soy sauce. Chef Dennis uses beef ribs rather than the traditional chicken and pork, and accents with chicharon fried in achuete oil. He has a salad of tiny pajo mangoes mixed with cocktail onions and a calamansi vinaigrette. Some dishes are "good as is", chef says, and he cites the tinumis, banana heart sauteed with shrimps and finished with vinegar and sotanghon, apparently a very popular ingredient in these parts.

A dessert item from the Pastorelli menu that is not to be missed is the Afogato Barako, an Italian coffee concoction of vanilla ice cream and espresso. This delicious version starts with a base of creme brulee topped with homemade chocolate ice cream, over which is poured espresso made from barako beans from Lipa ("the best," says Chef Dennis) and garnished with chocolate slivers. And even if you will stay awake for the next three days you must end your meal with a cup of the very "brave" (matapang) brew, Batangas barako, or the macho gods of the province will never forgive you.

Chef Dennis spent a good part of last year researching the cuisine of the province, sampling all varieties of local fare from streetside eateries to ancestral kitchens where old family recipes are recorded in years of smoke and soot above the stoves. It has also been a long and extensive search for the best sources of ingredients, and he still rues the inconsistent and erratic supply of some of the basics, especially seafood.

His total immersion into his food research, as well as his relocation to Batangas is made easier by his being a bachelor. A graduate of hotel and restaurant administration from the University of the Philippines, he started out as a management trainee.

"But I really wanted to cook," he says, so he read books and experimented with dishes. He took a job as a kitchen helper at the Hyatt hotel in 1993; fortunately, "my chef there encouraged me to experiment". He was part of the team that opened the hotel’s coffee shop Al Fresco.

He moved over to The Peninsula Manila, where he also was part of the team that opened Mi Piace. He played the same role at the Manila Southwoods, opening Southwoods Manor. He returned to the Hyatt in 1999 as sous chef, but fate soon beckoned and led him to the Chateau 1771 group, where he structured a new menu for the Malate landmark Portico. He opened the group’s flagship modern Filipino restaurant Sentro at the new Greenbelt complex in 2002, and was naturally tapped to open Pontefino last year.

Chef Dennis enjoys his role as an "opening chef", relishing the challenges of starting from scratch with each restaurant. Opening Pontefino had its own unique challenges (he doesn’t call them problems), not just because he had to learn and understand a new cuisine, but also because he had to train a whole staff used to family- or home-style operations to do things as professionals in an efficiently-run organization. But he is obviously pleased with the way things are going; his staff of 15–nine of whom are cooks–is able to handle the food requirements of large functions (the hotel does conferences and parties like wedding receptions) as well as individual a la carte orders–even requests for half a cup of coffee in a mug.

To get to Hotel Pontefino, take the Batangas City or Tambo exit at the end of the Star Tollway and head south into Batangas City. Signs along the road will lead you to the hotel. Tel (043) 723-FINO.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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